WASHINGTON — The Democrats were lying in wait for John Boehner when the Republican leader of the House announced that he would address the subject of congressional reform in a speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute.
Before Boehner opened his mouth, Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasted him in a statement charging that “Congressional Republicans and Mr. Boehner have stood in the way of Democratic reform efforts in Congress for the last four years, and now they want to take America back to the exact same failed policies of the past that put the corporate special interests ahead of the middle class.”
That is par for the course in this campaign season, and it represents the sort of reflexive partisanship that voters are understandably sick of.
Unless the forecasts for next month’s House elections are wildly off course, the House will operate in 2011-12 with a small majority under nominal control of Pelosi or Boehner, but probably at the mercy of shifting coalitions.
In such a setting, it might well behoove people to assume that Boehner should be taken seriously when he acknowledges that the reputation of this Congress is so bad that it cries out for reform.
Many of the Republican leader’s proposals are standard, and some that are not are questionable. But few who serve in the House, or observe it closely, would challenge Boehner’s analysis of the dynamic that has made Congress a dysfunctional legislative body and Capitol Hill a hostile workplace.
“One of the reasons why we do not have a functioning civil society in the House,” he said, “is that our efforts are geared toward catering to the individual member instead of focusing on our collective responsibility to govern.”
Boehner argued that on the House side, “the rules are too often manipulated to shut down debate and protect individual members from tough votes.” He was too polite to say so, but the Senate is even worse when it comes to accommodating or indulging its members, at the cost of collective responsibility.
What Boehner called “a cycle of gridlock” afflicts both sides of the Capitol, and has been enabled by both parties, depending on who had the majority. As he was honest enough to admit, the abuses did not start when Pelosi took the gavel, and both sides have been guilty of twisting the rules.
If the margins of control shrink next January, as I think they will, it might well be time to negotiate a truce.
I’d like to see Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leaders take Boehner up on the challenge he has raised, not try to demean it. He said, for example, that rather than stifling debate through the manipulation of rules, “we should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the parties. ... Let’s let legislators legislate again.“
It would be great if the leaders could engage each other seriously at the start of the next Congress on rules and procedures for doing the nation’s business. There’s no excuse for the House failing to pass a budget resolution, as happened for the first time this year. As Boehner said, it boggles the mind that spending bills for major government departments are lumped together in an indigestible mass.
When large majorities of the nation’s voters voice disdain and distrust for a Congress that is supposed to represent them in writing the laws, it is not just a problem for one party or the other. It is a threat to our system of government.
Boehner was a serious legislator for five years at the start of this decade as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, before he became a floor leader for his party. His diagnosis of the problems in Congress offers a starting point for a cure. Let’s hope the Democrats respond.